Bob Franken

The FTC Wants to Study the Media: That’s a Big Problem


The Federal Trade Commission is scheduling public workshops on the media — two full days to examine the problems of journalism. Please permit me to be subtle: What a DUMB idea!!! This is the Federal Trade Commission we’re talking about.

The New York Times reports the sessions, scheduled for December, are designed to “play a facilitating and public education role in gathering together various disciplines and perspectives to talk about the crisis in mainstream journalism.”

Hey, FTC: Butt out. The industry is crawling with academics and other navel-gazers always at the ready to whine about the “crisis.” That’s what we do. We don’t need the government sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong — into a free press, as in First Amendment free. Free from government interference. That’s one of our bedrock principles. Remember?

The broadcast industry already falls under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission, which enforces antitrust matters that might concern the FTC. Moreover, the FTC has power over a slew of issues that have a direct impact on the lifeblood of the media — meaning money. When a report is issued (oh yeah, there will be a report), any number of timid executives will be willing to do whatever it takes to placate the feds. The term for that, I believe, is “chilling effect.”

As the Times points out, commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who dreamed up this idea, is the husband of Washington Post writer Ruth Marcus, which probably explains his intense interest in the declining fortunes of the media.

I am a huge fan of Ruth’s work; she’s one of the best in the business. So it gives me pause to disagree with her if she’s supporting her husband’s endeavor. Still: It’s a bad idea. It was a bad idea a few weeks ago when Dan Rather proposed a presidential commission, and it’s more worrisome now that an arm of government has decided to actually do it.

For justification, Leibowitz points out that his agency has taken close looks at other industries, exploring hospital competition, for instance, food marketing and the patent system. But the media are different. We are supposed to have a unique role — to be independent, not intimidated.

Many already charge that our news organizations aren’t independent enough — too beholden to economic pressure, for one thing, and too much a part of the system they’re supposed to monitor. This could only make things worse. The first thing anybody associated with our profession should do, if the FTC asks, is to decline to participate

There’s no indication the commission has some insidious, ulterior motive with these hearings. Assuming its interest is benign or just well intentioned, we still should say “No, thanks.” Better yet: “Hell, no.”

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